Is big brother in your address book?

Sooner rather than later, and whether we like it or not, organizations will have to confront the issue of e-mail monitoring. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have any easy answers for what could or should be done.

On the one hand, I find the idea of companies playing Big Brother appalling. I sense that most organizations, large or small, are working hard to cultivate a relationship of trust between management and worker and this could seriously undermine that trust.

I also wonder what is the big deal. People have been wasting time for years making personal phone calls and conversing by the water cooler. Now it’s personal e-mails. We’re not robots. Who cares?

On the other hand, you have to be pretty naive if you believe it doesn’t happen. And there’s a growing number of people in corporate management, I’m told, who think the problem is bordering on out of control. Their argument? The Internet makes the whole problem of time-wasting worse than ever.

What triggered all this? A short press release (received via e-mail) from the Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA) entitled, “Survey on Internet misuse will identify need for management policy.”

I have a few problems with that.

Number one: Why are they telling us the survey WILL find something they know to be true? Aren’t you supposed to make up your mind only after the results come in?

Number two: I don’t like overstatement of which this little press release has plenty. “We’re betting that this issue could become the most serious Information Technology problem for the next five years,” says Bajai president and CEO Anthony Whitehead, who is joining with CATA on the survey and whose Ottawa-based firm (surprise, surprise) sells software that monitors e-mail.

(In a bit of crazy irony, my initial indignation, expressed in an e-mail which I thought I had sent to a co-worker, was actually promptly and inadvertently sent right back to CATA’s head office. Oh well.)

To their credit, CATA responded instantly to my concerns (via telephone call) and a conversation/interview was arranged between myself, CATA’s Barry Gander and Whitehead.

Whitehead tells me organizations need to be concerned about e-mail content if only because of liability, citing a few examples of U.S. companies that have been sued for millions of dollars. Fair enough.

But I want to discuss wasting time via personal e-mail. I, at the risk of incriminating myself, make the point that I use personal e-mail in the same way I once used the phone. I may occasionally book squash courts with friends, I finalize plans for Friday night and I’ll routinely send personal messages to anybody I’ve known for a long time. Please tell me companies aren’t worried about workers like me.

Probably not. But there are workers who, Whitehead insists, routinely engage in a two-hour session with eBay. “That certainly is not work-related,” he charges.

I respond by saying I don’t want anybody reading my e-mail, corporate or otherwise, except for intended recipients.

Whitehead tells me by using the software, nobody in IT, or wherever, actually reads your e-mail. Using a technique called semantic processing, the software employs an algorithm that checks specific word content looking for things like inappropriate language or trade secrets that may have been leaked out.

Hmmm.

Not convinced that we’ve resolved the issue, we all decide to wait for the results of the survey.

A complicated issue? Of course.

But I think we need more research. Fill out the CATA survey. Better yet, e-mail us at this address and tell us what you think. We would love to be able to monitor — er — find out more about this very important situation.

sslofstra@plesman.com

Shane Schick is on holiday and will return next week

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